Hope springs eternal

The Natural History Museum’s curator of marine mammals, Richard Sabin, tells Chris Seekings about the institution’s latest star attraction and his optimism that it will inspire future generations to conserve our natural world

In times of heightened interest in climate change and sustainability, the Natural History Museum thought it appropriate to make a statement on its own commitment to tackling the challenges of today. 

The result? A stunning 25.2 metre real blue whale skeleton taking centre stage in the museum’s Hintze Hall, suspended from the ceiling to allow visitors to gaze at and walk beneath the largest creature ever to have lived. 

This might not seem immediately relevant to the challenges we currently face, but the blue whale was hunted to the brink of extinction in the 20th century and was one of the first species that humans decided to save on a global scale.

As such, the skeleton was named ‘Hope’ – a symbol of humanity’s power to shape a sustainable future – with the museum’s marine mammals curator and whale expert Richard Sabin instrumental in selecting the specimen and overseeing its successful unveiling. So who better to interview about the museum’s role in conservation?

A rousing reception

Speaking to Sabin also holds personal significance for me, as my grandfather studied whales and dolphins while working at the Natural History Museum for 40 years. 

The day I catch up with Sabin, during what has been a busy media campaign, marks the 25th anniversary of the curator joining the museum. After expressing my gratitude to him, and revealing how happy my grandfather would have been to see the skeleton taking centre stage, it was also nice to hear that his books and research are still referred to today. 

I begin the interview by asking what the public reaction has been like. 

“Hope has been incredibly well received,” he says. “It is amazing how people react when they see this enormous skeleton above them with such dynamism and fluidity in its posture.” 

Some critics were sceptical about Hope replacing Dippy, the much-loved Diplodocus dinosaur skeleton. But Sabin believes it fits perfectly with the brief to encourage discussion of biodiversity, sustainability and evolution. “Those critics have been silenced,” he says. “The public reaction has been superb, and we have had praise from NGOs, museums, scientists and research colleagues from around the world saying we have done the right thing and made the right choice.”

Sabin explains how he wanted people to be able to appreciate the sheer size of these mammals, and to be reminded that they are still out there living in our oceans. “However, they have a very marginal position in terms of their numbers,” he says, “even though we have managed to protect them from commercial exploitation and have increased numbers.”

Sabin is referring to the International Whaling Commission’s decision to enforce a ban on commercial whaling in the 1980s, after the blue whale population fell from around 250,000 in the 1800s, to as few as 400 in 1966. There are now approximately 20,000 blue whales alive today, with the moratorium responsible for bringing numbers up to the levels necessary for a viable population.

“That is an example of how international collaboration and co-operation can be used to conserve marine life,” Sabin says. “With Hope, we wanted a model that would help people recognise that, when we work together internationally and put these conservation measures in place, animals and ecosystems can recover.” 

Sabin goes on to explain how other issues have now taken prominence, such as ocean acidification, the effects of climate change, marine pollutants like plastics in the ocean and anthropogenic noise. “These things are in the public mindset now, and are being reported much more directly and frequently than before, which is good, but as to what we are doing about them – well it has been a kind of patchy response.”

Polluting plastics 

Earlier this year, scientists found more than 30 plastic bags and other non-biodegradable waste inside a Cuvier’s beaked whale off the coast of Norway. Just months later, experts removed four kilos of plastic from an animal of the same species after it washed up on the Isle of Skye. Around the same time, an international study revealed that eight million metric tonnes of plastic entered the ocean in 2010; an issue that Sabin agrees must be tackled urgently. 

“We can’t keep using the ocean as a dumping ground, deliberately or passively,” he says. “We have to be aware of how our actions, day-to-day living and agricultural effluence can result in plastic entering water courses, which eventually end up in the ocean.” 

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs said last year that England’s plastic bag usage dropped 85% after the government introduced a 5p charge at retailers to help remove litter and protect wildlife. I tell Sabin of further plans to limit the UK’s pollution levels, with analysis by the Green Alliance showing how the introduction of a deposit return scheme for beverage containers could cut the amount of plastic litter entering the oceans by a third. 

“That is a superb example of taking an issue and turning it into something that can be quantified and broadly understood by the public,” he tells me. “I think it is fantastic how countries like the UK have taken the issue of supermarket carrier bags, brought in a charge, and made it into an issue that people really respond to.” 

It is this sort of response that gives Sabin optimism for the future, saying that the internet and TV programmes have greatly increased the amount of information available to people. “Generally speaking, we are dealing with a very educated – or, at least, better informed – population than when I was a child. The fact that these issues are being discussed around the water cooler is great.” 

Although Sabin admits these are small steps, he argues that it is vital everybody takes responsibility in tackling global problems. “It might seem that these issues are so large, so huge, that people wonder how changing what they do can make a difference,” he continues. “We need to help them feel that they can make a difference, because often they can.”

The great unknown

Sabin agrees that the effects of climate change are having just as much, if not more of an impact on our oceans as they are on land, and encourages people to limit their carbon emissions. Human activity is thought to have had a directly negative impact on marine life, with a recent study revealing that the hunting and killing of larger species in the oceans has resulted in an “unprecedented extinction of sealife, unlike any in the fossil record”. 

However, with oceans taking up 70% of the earth, and 90% remaining unexplored, Sabin acknowledges that it is not clear how human actions will affect our waters’ ecosystems in years to come. 

“It is such a difficult environment in which to study organisms,” he explains. “You really have to go to great extremes to gather the data you need. It takes a long time to get that information and put it into a broader context. And, at this stage, we do not fully comprehend what the effects of our impact will be.” 

So Sabin is keen to highlight how the work of museums will inform the policy decisions of future generations, stressing the importance of forming a time series. Scientists from all over the world visit the Natural History Museum to see its research collection of some 4,000 cetaceans, of which the earliest specimens date back to the 18th century. “With the collections we hold, data collected from marine mammals in the wild today can be compared with data from those same species, from the same locations, but going back in time,” he explains. “Research colleagues are then able to publish critical data, which is submitted to conservation bodies and governments to help them inform decisions about the natural world.” 

Sabin went on to outline the amount of work done at the Natural History Museum, where hundreds of scientists work behind the scenes on important topical issues, trying to position the institution as a “natural history museum of the future”.

A new Hope

He tells me how important it is for the scientific community to continue the work of others, highlighting how my grandfather’s research has been an important reference for him. “Building on the work of our predecessors is the way it goes, and, hopefully, at the end of my career, someone will build on the work I have done,” he says. 

It is these younger generations that Hope is intended to inspire, with Sabin admitting that he felt a huge amount of responsibility overseeing the months of work that went into presenting the skeleton. The unveiling took him back to his childhood years. 

“It is really difficult to describe the amount of emotion that I felt,” he says. “I was thinking back to my 10-year-old self, when I first visited the museum on a school trip in 1976, seeing the skeleton in its original position in the Whale Hall. I was stunned and amazed at the size of this thing, and wanted to know more.” 

This was a life-changing moment for Sabin, who hopes that others will have a similar experience, potentially inspiring the next generation of scientists to help conserve the natural world. 

“It is about really capturing the minds and imaginations of young visitors, inspiring them to get involved in science, and making people realise that science is for everyone, that it is accessible, and that we can all take part.” 

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